Christmas is still a few more sleeps away, but the mothers-with-babies unit at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility (ARWCF) in Wiri has already been transformed into a Christmas wonderland with colourful and festive-looking decorations handmade by the mothers.

Volunteer childminder Dianne Pitciathly and one of the women in the mothers with babies unit put the finishing touches on a photo frame.An air of expectation is tangible in the unit. As a few babies sleep peacefully and others play happily with some toys, a group of mothers is proudly putting the final touches to their handmade Christmas photo frames. The colourful frames will be ready when Santa visits soon for photos with the little ones.

Guiding them through the creative process is Dianne Pitciathly, one of five volunteer childminders, who visits the unit regularly to babysit the little ones when the mothers are attending training programmes and courses.

The mothers-with-babies unit comprises two self-care houses accommodating seven mothers and babies, at present, with the infants’ and toddlers’ ages ranging from two weeks to 18 months.

The mothers-with-babies unit at ARWCF first opened in 2011. The two houses have capacity for up to four mothers and babies each.

“An estimated 70 per cent of women prisoners are primary caregivers, with some being mothers to young babies. Our mothers-with-babies unit offers not only a safe haven for the littlies, but also contribute significantly to helping the mothers bond with their children. This, in turn, has a hugely positive effect on the mothers’ behaviour and most definitely contributes to reducing their re-offending,” says Cheryle Mikaere, ARWCF prison director.

The babies may stay with their mothers in the unit up until two years of age.

In the week leading up to Christmas, a special ‘Eight days of Christmas Celebration’ is being organised for the mothers and babies.

“The mums and babies will participate in their own Olympic Games, a trivia quiz, treasure hunts, bake-offs, house decoration competitions, a Christmas raffle with prizes, and a talent quest. Barbeques will be held for the mothers and babies on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day,” says Ayvah Tuialii, senior corrections officer at ARWCF.

Ayvah adds that families may visit the mothers and their children on 23 and 24 December.

A festive frame ready for baby and Santa’s photo.Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, with the help of the childminder volunteers, the women have been making a range of Christmas decorations for their houses, much to the delight of the young ones.

Christmas stockings, smiley Santas, reindeer and other decorations are being displayed in the windows, while a beautiful handmade Christmas tree in pink, green and silver on the wall in one of the lounges catches the eye.

The two women, who designed and created the tree, are pleased with their handiwork.

“Since we can’t have a real Christmas tree in our unit, we just had a look at the ribbon, paper and tinsel we had available, and started designing the concept. We’re very happy with how it turned out,” they say.

Corrections officer Laura Taylor cuddles a two-week old new arrival at the mothers with babies unit, as he admires a Christmas tree on the wall.Ruth Patterson, volunteer co-ordinator in Corrections’ northern region, expresses her gratitude and appreciation for the volunteer childminders, who have been coming in to the mothers-with-babies unit since February this year to take care of the little ones.

“These volunteers are fantastic and their support is invaluable,” says Ruth.

The childminders are either qualified nannies or have other appropriate experience, and the kids love being with them. They organise all kinds of stimulating and creative for the babies, and make sure they are safe, fed, dry, healthy and happy.

“The fact that these volunteers enable the mothers to have time available to attend training and rehabilitation courses is vital, as the women’s attendance and completion of these programmes play a key role in decisions about their parole,” explains Ruth.

At the same time, the volunteer childminders are important role models, and support the mothers in various other ways, such as providing a listening ear, sharing advice about babies from the years of raising their own children, or just enjoying a cup of tea together.

Dianne, a qualified nanny, with two adult children and two grandchildren of her own, has been a volunteer childminder at the ARWCF mothers-with babies unit since February this year. She comes in once or twice a week for about two-and-a-half hours.

Dianne heard about the volunteer childminding role when she was visiting an Auckland toy library and saw a notice.

“I love coming to visit the mothers and babies, and I think it is vital not to forget about this important group of people in our society. By spending time with them, I believe I am making a difference in the lives of these young people,” she says.